Photos by Jason Kotoch
NORTHAMPTON — When I first walked into the Daily Hampshire Gazette office on Conz Street in late 2016, it wasn’t the coffee-stained carpets or the mold trailing out of the ceiling vents that caught my eye. Instead, it was the same objects that awed children and adults alike on tours around the building: the three-story-high printing press and the towering rolls of paper that filled it.
But that building is now gone, and so is the press and its giant paper rolls.
In 2020, despite the protests of staffers and community members, the Gazette’s parent company, Newspapers of New England, outsourced printing operations to the nation’s largest newspaper publisher, Gannett. Twenty-nine people lost their jobs and the paper was printed outside Northampton for the first time since its founding in 1786. Then, last year, the company sold the building to local hotelier Mansour Ghalibaf, who owns Hotel Northampton and the neighboring Fairfield Inn & Suites. In April, he had the deteriorating building torn down to make way for yet another hotel and retail shops. The Gazette now rents space down the street, at 23 Service Center Rd.
The Gazette still has a physical newsroom, unlike an increasing number of U.S. newspapers, which are still the keystone species in the country’s news ecosystem. And the paper’s staff have continued their award-winning work chronicling life in the Valley.
The loss of the Conz Street office nevertheless drew strong reactions from Gazette alumni and others around Northampton, some of whom lamented the symbolism in an era when the news landscape’s deserts continue to expand. The building was old, sick and unnecessarily big after ownership shuttered the press. But it also carried more than four decades of memories. Anyone who opened filing cabinets there could find them: decades-old clippings organized by subject in the paper’s “morgue files,” stacks of photos and aged VHS tapes from the days when staffers organized a movie-sharing club.
During my short six years as a staff writer for the Gazette, the building kept plenty of drama concealed inside, only some of which traveled beyond its walls. One early morning, for example, somebody who was angry at a family member who worked at the paper sprayed-painted an insult on the front of the building. Another morning, somebody allegedly lit the publisher’s car on fire out back.
Most memorably, in the fall of 2018, workers from across the building gathered their courage in a back room that previously housed the Valley Advocate office — by that point empty of staff, old copies of the moribund alt-weekly yellowing on the walls. We then did what so few U.S. workers can boast: marched to the boss’s office and announced that we had formed a union.
But more than any of that, it’s the happy daily moments that come to mind when I see the hole where the building used to be on Conz Street: picnics on the front lawn with my family; working the early shift, light from the sunrise flooding the empty newsroom through the building’s big front windows; hearing the press whirring in the back on election night.
Some of those kinds of moments continue for those still working at the paper. But what was lost with the Conz Street office? Publisher Shawn Palmer and Executive Editor Dan Crowley declined an interview, so I reached out to a few former employees who spent decades in that building working to keep the community informed.
Deb Scherban started at the newspaper as a freelance stringer in 1975. Soon after, she started working in the Amherst bureau — the paper also had an Easthampton bureau back in those days — before moving into the main newsroom, where she covered just about every beat in the city. In 1987, she became the editor of the Gazette’s magazine, Hampshire Life, and in 2018 became the first woman in the paper’s history to serve as editor in chief, a position she held on an interim basis for six months before retiring.
“I spent a lot of years in that building so it was very sad for me to see it go,” she told The Shoestring. “I know they had their reasons and I’m sure they were compelling reasons for them to have to do that, and I haven’t been to their new space yet … But for me it was just a very important piece, the building, because people congregated there and there was a lot of wonderful camaraderie.”
Scherban said that from all the happy years she spent as a Gazette journalist, some of her best memories were from late nights during elections or working on other stories.
“It was just a place to be together and I think that’s what I would miss if I were still working there,” she said. “I know they are still together, they have a smaller space … There was something about having the press just beat away, you could hear it running. It was just a very exciting moment when the press would start to run. Like when I was editing Hampshire Life, I would run back when Hampshire Life started coming off the press and you’d grab the magazine off the press and you’d leaf through it and make sure there were no errors. And if there were you’d say, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ That sort of thing is missing because they can’t do that anymore, they don’t print on site any longer.”
For David Baranoski, a former press operator, the camaraderie was what he remembered best from his time in that building. He worked at the paper from 2010 until the company laid off him and all his press-worker colleagues in 2020. Baranoski was 65 when NNE shuttered the press, so he took it as a sign that it was time to retire. But he said he would probably still be working there if things had been different.
Baranoski fondly recalled the Advocate Sessions — intimate sets that local musicians played in the Valley Advocate’s offices tucked away in the back of the Conz Street building. He said he always made sure to get his work finished in time to drop by to see who was performing.
“Those were good times,” he said. “I would often post a behind-the-scenes pic to help support the performers.”
Mary Carey was a reporter at the newspaper from 1994 to 2009, working as a stringer covering Shutesbury, Leverett and Belchertown before becoming a full-timer. She said she worked more often out of the Amherst Bureau, which is now a cannabis dispensary, but would very occasionally bring her son Nicky to work in the Conz Street office.
“One time on Conz, I gave Nicky, who was probably about 5 — he’s 31 now — a bag of microwave popcorn to make while I was busy,” she recalled. He asked me how long to put it in. I estimated about 4 minutes, which was way too long. The popcorn burned and the fire alarm went off, alerting everyone in the then-bustling building. I was mortified.”
Two other memories stuck out for her. She remembers when a group crowded around the teletype machine in the newsroom as the salacious Starr Report on Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky unfurled. She said she could hardly believe what she was reading.
“I also remember when we first got computers with internet on them,” she said. “There was one in the newsroom not far from where the editors sat, and I was very curious about what [sports reporter] Matt Vautour, who was the only person I remember seeing standing there, was using it for.”
Stanley Moulton, who now serves as Ward 1 city councilor in Northampton, worked at the Gazette from 1974, the year before the paper’s office moved from 16 Armory St. to Conz Street, until his retirement in 2018. He said the Conz Street office represented the “growth period” for the Gazette. Circulation increased and so did staffing, he said, and a handful of additions were put on the building to accommodate all of that.
“It really became a place that really fostered a real sense of public service,” he said. “Of informing and educating and entertaining the community and being a really important institution for the community to understand issues, to hold public officials accountable, to shine a light on newsworthy things.”
Moulton said that fortunately for the Gazette, several longtime editors are still leading those same efforts. But the demolition of the Conz Street building is symbolic of how big corporate media has squashed community journalism across the country, he added.
“They just don’t have the tools to do it with the kind of robustness that you and I were used to even near the end of my tenure at the Gazette,” he said. “Lack of staff, lack of space means you don’t get as much news, you don’t get it as quickly as you would like. To me it’s very symbolic of what’s happened to journalism in this country.”
On a recent afternoon, I traveled over to the home of Ed Shanahan, the editor of the paper from 1971 to 1986 and who Moulton and Scherban praised for the quality of journalism he fostered at the Gazette.
Walking past shelves of books by everyone from Eduardo Galeano to Rebecca Solnit, Shanahan — who opened the Florence book store Bookends not long after leaving the Gazette — stopped at a picture of himself from his years as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press before coming to Northampton. He’s leaning against the wall of a city apartment, making a phone call on a black rotary-dial phone. Beside him, somebody had scrawled words on the wall: “Kill the Pig. Revolution.” Shanahan smiled and said that he was fortunate the Gazette’s publishers didn’t see that picture before naming him as the paper’s top editor.
“They wouldn’t have hired me,” he joked.
Shanahan described the ethos of the newsroom in that period as “marked by healthy irreverence” and “bold efforts, some successful, to tie a tin can on tails of the bad guys.” And the publishers, Charles and Peter DeRose, were generally supportive of that, he added.
“We used to do a lot of stories that would piss people off,” he said.
For people like Shanahan and others who still get their news in the printed, physical newspaper, he said the outsourcing of the press and printing operations has meant that the news comes slower. He described being “a day behind” and said that while that might not matter to others, it is a “deficit” for him.
“I think there’s a lot of papers that are just waiting and waiting and waiting for the time when it’s appropriate for them to completely get rid of the print version entirely,” he said. “The destruction of the building is just a metaphor for what’s happening to local newspapers.”
The shrinking of newspapers isn’t a rare phenomenon in towns big and small, Shanahan said. But there were ways that the Gazette’s owners could have softened the blow for the community and staff, he said.
“When you start selling off your press and then you put your building up on the block, people begin to say, ‘Whoa whoa, what’s happening here?’” he said.
But Shanahan said he has hope for the future of journalism and newspapers like the Gazette. (Two of his sons are journalists, one at The Boston Globe and another at The New York Times.) He said he might be a traditionalist when it comes to his love of the physical paper, but that there’s something special about newspapers and the role they play in their communities.
As for the question of how to protect the vital role newspapers play, Shanahan answered with another wry joke.
“I guess if you would shut down the internet, that would be the first step,” he said.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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